Tag Archives: Thomas Hardy

The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy

image by Linda Richardson

image by Linda Richardson

For New Year’s eve in my  Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, I have chosen to read Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’, which was written on New Year’s Eve at the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. Though it begins with Hardy’s characteristically bleak forboding, suddenly the poet in him discerns and allows another note of hope.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. The image above was created by Linda Richardson. She writes:

I first heard this poem at school and thought Hardy a very depressing poet. I didn’t have the tenacity to stay with the poem through the bleakness until the hope. When we are not mature we only want laughter and fun and a perpetual summer time. There is no virtue in winter and we avoid pain at all costs. The consequence of this is, not only are we likely to be selfish, but we lack the contrasts that give life depth and meaning. The image I made reflects this theme of contrast.

I made a black and white photo transfer of a small bird in a tangle of twigs and painted the canvas with cold blues and violets. I enhanced the roughness of the surface by applying thread in an acrylic medium to the surface of the painting. Out of the grey coldness of the painting comes the idea of pure and beautiful bird song. If we try to make earth our heaven we will be terribly disappointed, but here, amid the stark grey of winter, comes a song of hope. Annie Dillard, the American writer and poet says, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.”

You can find the words, and a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle

The Darkling Thrush Thomas Hardy

 

I leant upon a coppice gate

When Frost was spectre-grey,

And Winter’s dregs made desolate

The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

Like strings of broken lyres,

And all mankind that haunted nigh

Had sought their household fires.

 

The land’s sharp features seemed to be

The Century’s corpse outleant,

His crypt the cloudy canopy,

The wind his death-lament.

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

Was shrunken hard and dry,

And every spirit upon earth

Seemed fervourless as I.

 

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

Upon the growing gloom.

 

So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

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Filed under imagination, Poems

The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy

For New Year’s eve in my  Anthology from Canterbury PressWaiting on the Word, I have chosen to read Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’, which was written on New Year’s Eve at the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. Though it begins with Hardy’s characteristically bleak forboding, suddenly the poet in him discerns and allows another note of hope.

You can hear me read this poem by clicking on the title or the play button. the image above was created by Lancia Smith. you can see this and more on her  excellent Website Cultivating the True the Good and the Beautiful.. You can find the words, and a short reflective essay on this poem in Waiting on the Word, which is now also available on Kindle

The Darkling Thrush Thomas Hardy

 

I leant upon a coppice gate

When Frost was spectre-grey,

And Winter’s dregs made desolate

The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

Like strings of broken lyres,

And all mankind that haunted nigh

Had sought their household fires.

 

The land’s sharp features seemed to be

The Century’s corpse outleant,

His crypt the cloudy canopy,

The wind his death-lament.

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

Was shrunken hard and dry,

And every spirit upon earth

Seemed fervourless as I.

 

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

Upon the growing gloom.

 

So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.

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Filed under imagination, Poems

Faith Hope and Poetry is out in Paperback!

Since my book Faith Hope and Poetry was published by Ashgate in the Autumn of 2010 a number of people have been asking me when, if ever, there would be a paperback version. This was both because the hardback was very expensive(£55 -their policy not mine!) and also because even the hardback sold out by the middle of last year! Well the good news is Ashgate agreed to a new paperback edition, which costs a lot less (£16.19 from their site!) and it is out now! Official publication date is March the 21st but it is actually available now both from Ashgate and from Amazon. Here is Ashgate’s own ‘flyer’ for the book, which gathers up some of the kinder things that have been said in the various reviews and also gives a link to their page. If you get to the site and the price is in the wrong currency for you then there is a button in the top right hand corner you can click to toggle between Europe and America (wouldn’t it be great if one could also toggle oneself between europe and North america at the touch of a button!) so here’s the flyer:

Faith Hope & Poetry Pbk March 2010

Faith Hope and Poetry takes you through an exploration and celebration of some of the greatest poetry in the English language, its really just me sharing my enthusiasm for these poems. But I had another purpose too. At its heart this book is a defence of the poetic imagination as a truth-bearing faculty, as an essential but sadly under-used way of apprehending the truths we need to know to flourish as human beings I tried to sum it all up, at the end of the book, in a two paragraph conclusion and I am going to paste that in here, the final words of the whole book, to give you an idea of what you might be in for if you decide to read it:

Conclusion

This book has been written as both a vindication and a celebration of the poetic imagination; a defence of its status as a truth-bearer and an exploration of the kinds of truth it is capable of bearing. In particular I have been concerned to demonstrate the essential power of imagination to bridge the gap between immanence and transcendence, to mediate meaning between unembodied ‘apprehension’ and embodied ‘comprehension’. I have also been concerned to show that a study of poetic imagination turns out to be a form of theology; that in seeking understand how multiple meanings come to be’ bodied forth’ in finite poems which ‘grow to something of great constancy’ we discover a new understanding of the prime embodiment of all meaning which is the Incarnation. And this new understanding of incarnation in its turn gives us a new confidence in the ultimate significance of our own acts of poetic embodiment. But if poetry as a manifestation of particular embodiment speaks of the immanence of God, then poetry as a means of cleansing and transfiguring vision speaks of God’s transcendence. Throughout this book I have sought to celebrate moments of transfigured vision in poetry, and also to help discern the source of that truth which transfigured vision sees, of that unexpected music which the imagination hears.  In an age of faith it was possible for poets, from the anonymous poet of The Dream of the Rood, who saw the Cross transfigured in light, to Milton invoking ‘holy light’, to find the Source of transfigured vision and to name that source as Christ, the logos and the light of the world. From the mid-17th century onward, things could not be so simple again as poets and philosophers alike faced the challenge of a reductive science that pulled down shutters over the windows of vision, bearing the bleak inscription, ‘nothing else’. We have seen how the poets, to whom the clarification of our vision had been entrusted, fought a rear-guard action, and especially how Coleridge did this both by writing poetry full of clarified, imaginative vision, and also by undertaking the hard, philosophical work necessary to reinstate the imagination as an instrument with which we grasp reality rather than evade it.  We have seen that in order to make sense of the actual experience of writing and reading poetry, he was compelled to rediscover the mystery of God as Holy Trinity.  For Coleridge poetry is not a fanciful compensation for the irreducible bleakness of things; it is part of the evidence that all things are at least potentially luminous with the light of God.  Coleridge was a prophet sent more for our own age than for his; he foresaw the inadequacy of the whole Cartesian/Newtonian model with its foreclosed rigidities and its too-easy submission to what he called the ‘despotism of the eye’.  Now, we live in an age when that rigid system, against which Coleridge was protesting, is being overthrown.  Those blinding shutters inscribed ‘nothing else’ are being drawn up; and now it is not only the major poets in our midst, like Heaney, but also the scientists themselves and the philosophers of science, rediscovering the vital role imagination has to play in their endeavours, who are helping to remove these ‘blinds’.

This cleansing and training of vision through a revitalised imagination, is a common task for Science, Poetry and Theology. My purpose has been to highlight the essential role, in fulfilling this common task, played by the poetic imagination.

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The Darkling Thrush; an old/new year’s reflection

A song thrush, not quite so blast-beruffled

On December 31st, 1900, ThomasHardy wrote this remarkable poem, I have added below a close reading of the poem from my book Faith Hope and Poetry. I hope you enjoy it. You can also hear me reading the poem by clicking on the title which will take you to my audioboo page

 

 

 

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate

When Frost was spectre-grey,

And Winter’s dregs made desolate

The weakening eye of day.

The tangled bine-stems scored the sky

Like strings of broken lyres,

And all mankind that haunted nigh

Had sought their household fires.

 

The land’s sharp features seemed to be

The Century’s corpse outlent,

His crypt the cloudy canopy,

The wind his death-lament.

The ancient pulse of germ and birth

Was shrunken hard and dry,

And every spirit upon earth

Seemed fervourless as I.

 

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of joy illimited;

An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,

In blast-beruffled plume,

Had chosen thus to fling his soul

Upon the growing gloom.

 

So little cause for carolings

Of such ecstatic sound

Was written on terrestrial things

Afar or nigh around,

That I could think there trembled through

His happy good-night air

Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew

And I was unaware.[1]

This famous poem reflects the mood of the dying year, the dying century, dying humanity. Hardy fully witnesses the bleakness but sets against it the counter-witness of the thrush’s song, holding them together with the tentative syntax of his conditional possibility of some blessed hope. This poem was written on the 31st of December 1900, and the dying of that winter’s day, Hardy also took to be the century’s death; the end of the 19th century, with all its hopes of unimpeded progress and universal peace, cheated and defeated.  The outward and visible desolation of the day becomes, as it were, the first voice of the poem, and Hardy’s choice of language for that voice paints a word-picture of decline and dissolution from which one might think there was no recovery:

‘Spectre-grey…dregs…desolate…weakening…tangled…broken…haunted…corpse…crypt… shrunken…fervourless…bleak…frail…gaunt…gloom’ But then Hardy introduces a second voice:

At once a voice arose among

The bleak twigs overhead

In a full-hearted evensong

Of  joy  illimited;

The language chosen for this second voice is drawn not from the realm of death and decay, which was the register of the first voice, but rather from the language of the sacred; it is full of echoes from the Church upon which Hardy thought he had turned his back:  full-hearted evensong…joy…soul…carolings…blessed Hope.  The fact that we hear both these voices in this poem, that words from two such distinct linguistic registers are woven together in his verse, is a testament to Hardy’s integrity and honesty as an artist.  It would have been as easy and as tempting to him to have ignored the witness of the thrush, to have gone home and written an unremittingly grim poem, as it is tempting to the authors of religious doggerel to write ‘up-beat hymns’ which recycle the clichés of hope without ever making contact with the tragedies of life as it is actually lived. Hardy’s witness in this honest poem is that he can neither ignore nor believe the thrush.  What he sees as he leans on a gate on that winter day, gives him no hope at all, but he is not prepared to limit reality to ‘the things that are seen’; and perhaps the most honest word in the poem is the word, ‘seemed’, which concludes the second stanza.  Had he written ‘and every spirit upon earth was ‘fervourless as I’, he might never have heard the thrush at all; or hearing it, his mind might have twisted its song into yet another symbol of decay.  But as Heaney would be later, here Hardy is prepared to be ‘exposed to every wind that blows’[2], and even if he expects the finality of a bleak north wind, he does not ignore this faint air from Paradise.

The first two stanzas are concerned with the outward and visible world, with what we can see; Hope comes in the third stanza, when we stop looking at the familiar and listen, suddenly, to the unfamiliar, as when Heaney said, ‘what happens next is a music that you never would have known to listen for.[3]

Perhaps in order to hear, Hardy has to stop looking for a moment, and this is where the poem’s haunting title comes in, ‘The Darkling Thrush’.  One might take the word ‘darkling’ here, simply to refer to the fact that the thrush begins its song just as the day ends and it begins to get dark.  But for Hardy, and for any reader of English poetry, the word ‘darkling’ carries us immediately to Milton and Keats, the two other poets, both in darkness of one kind or another, both listening to birds, who used that word.  As we saw in Chapter Five, Milton used it to mark a turning point from despair to hope.  After a long passage lamenting his blindness and complaining of the loss of outward sight, he comes to realise that instead he has been gifted with an inward sight to be shared with others through his poetry, and compares himself to the wakeful bird’ that, ‘Sings darkling, and in shadiest covert hid/ Tunes her nocturnal note’[4].  Keats deliberately echoed Milton when he came to write the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’; but this time he applied the adverb ‘darkling’ not to the quality of the birds’ singing, as Milton had done, but to the quality of his listening:  ‘darkling I listen’[5].  And what Keats hears is not simply the outward sound but the expression of a soul and the intonation of ecstasy: ‘Thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad/ In such an ecstasy’[6].

Keats’ active imaginative apprehension of one of the ‘lovely shapes and sounds intelligible of that eternal language which God utters’[7], embodied beautifully by his art in the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, enters into and nurtures Hardy’s imagination.  Keats’ poetry enabled Hardy to make and express the same imaginative apprehension of what the birds’ song might mean, and his choice of language, with its echoes of the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, ‘had chosen thus to fling his soul’ and ‘carolings of such ecstatic sound’, acknowledge a debt he had already hinted in the choice of ‘darkling ‘for the title of his poem.

The two voices come together in the final stanza; hearing the ‘carolings of such ecstatic sound’, the bleak voice of Hardy the philosophical pessimist finds itself shifted from indicative verbs, which allow for one thing and one thing only to happen, to modal verb forms, which allow for more than one possibility.  In the first form, he says, ‘so little cause for carolings was written’; but after hearing these carolings, the verb form changes, something new is possible:  ‘I could think…some blessed Hope’.  The suggestion, even conditionally, of the possibility of something more than the merely visible, is beautifully expressed in the choice of the verb ‘trembled’ and the preposition ‘through’.  The ‘happy good-night air’ sung by the bird is one thing; but the poetry at last allows for the possibility that something else, from somewhere else, some ‘blessed Hope’ might ‘tremble through’ it.  We’ve been prepared for all of this by the choice of the word, ‘seemed’ before we heard the bird.  Once we know that the things we see might seem rather than be what we think they are, it becomes possible that, if only for a moment, something else might ‘tremble through’ them.  And this redeeming preposition ‘through’, is the same that opened the world’s windows onto heaven for Herbert when he wrote, ‘A man that looks on glass on it may stay his eye, or if he pleaseth through it pass and then the heavens espy.’[8]

But even as Hardy the poet allows the thrush to help him apprehend the possibility of some blessed hope, Hardy the philosopher tries to have the last word, and to close the poem with the claim to be ‘unaware’ of that hope.  ‘Unaware’ is an extraordinary word with which to close a poem which is supremely a poem of awareness; awareness both of all the signs of mortality, and of all the intimations of immortality.  In some ways, this beautiful poem is a testimony against itself.  Its tentative syntax is subverted by its ecstatic imagery.


[1] In The Collected Poems p. 137

[2] Line 36 in ‘North’ in North, (Faber 1975) p.68

[3] ‘The Rain Stick’ in The Spirit Level, (Faber 1996) p.1

[4] Paradise Lost Book III lines 37-39, in John Milton: Paradise Lost ed. Alastair Fowler, (Longman 1971) p.145

[5] ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ line 51 in The Poetical Works of John Keats ed. HW Garrod (Oxford 1939) p.259

[6] Ibid lines 57-58

[7] ‘Frost at Midnight’ lines 58-62 in Samuel Taylor Coleridge Poetical Works I edited by JCC Mays (Princeton 2001) pp453-456

[8] ‘The Elixir’ in George Herbert The Complete English Works ed. Ann Pasternak Slater (Everyman 1995) p. 180

 

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A longed-for day has come at last

It’s been a long time coming. My book Faith Hope and Poetry has been a labour of love over the last decade, written slowly in the midst of the many demands of pastoral, priestly, academic and family life, but it is here at last. I am immensley grateful to the many people who have helped me on this road, not least the sudents whose ideas and questions have always reminded this teacher that he cannot teach unless he is a student too. 

At the heart of my book is a celebration and defense of the imagination as a truth-bearing faculty, as an essential means of grasping reality, not a subjective fantasy compensation for the grimness of things ‘out there’.  Each chapter explores a poet or group of poets who are bearing witness, through imagination, to essential truths that I feel are pertinant to our own age but the whole book is about how the language of poetry initiates us into mysteries we could enter in no other way. By way of a taster I am posting here the dedicatory poem and the concluding paragraphs:

De Magistro

I thank my God I have emerged at last,
blinking from Hell, to see these quiet stars
bewildered by the shadows that I cast.

You set me on this stair, in those rich hours
pacing your study, chanting poetry.
The Word in you revealed His quickening powers,

removed the daily veil, and let me see,
as sunlight played along your book-lined walls,
that words are windows onto mystery.

From Eden, whence the living fountain falls
in music, from the tower of ivory,
and from the hidden heart, He calls

in the language of Adam, creating memory
of unfallen speech. He sets creation
free from the carapace of history.

His image in us is Imagination,
His Spirit is a sacrifice of breath
upon the letters of His revelation.

In mid-most of the word-wood is a path
that leads back to the springs of truth in speech.
You showed it to me, kneeling on your hearth,

you showed me how my halting words might reach
to the mind’s Maker, to the source of Love,
and so you taught me what it means to teach.

Teaching, I have my ardours now to prove
climbing with joy the steps of Purgatory.
Teacher and pupil, both are on the move,

as fellow pilgrims on a needful journey.

Conclusion

           ” This book has been written as both a vindication and a celebration of the poetic imagination; a defence of its status as a truth-bearer and an exploration of the kinds of truth it is capable of bearing. In particular I have been concerned to demonstrate the essential power of imagination to bridge the gap between immanence and transcendence, to mediate meaning between unembodied ‘apprehension’ and embodied ‘comprehension’. I have also been concerned to show that a study of poetic imagination turns out to be a form of theology; that in seeking understand how multiple meanings come to be’ bodied forth’ in finite poems which ‘grow to something of great constancy’ we discover a new understanding of the prime embodiment of all meaning which is the Incarnation. And this new understanding of incarnation in its turn gives us a new confidence in the ultimate significance of our own acts of poetic embodiment. But if poetry as a manifestation of particular embodiment speaks of the immanence of God, then poetry as a means of cleansing and transfiguring vision speaks of God’s transcendence. Throughout this book I have sought to celebrate moments of transfigured vision in poetry, and also to help discern the source of that truth which transfigured vision sees, of that unexpected music which the imagination hears.  In an age of faith it was possible for poets, from the anonymous poet of The Dream of the Rood, who saw the Cross transfigured in light, to Milton invoking ‘holy light’, to find the Source of transfigured vision and to name that source as Christ, the logos and the light of the world. From the mid-17th century onward, things could not be so simple again as poets and philosophers alike faced the challenge of a reductive science that pulled down shutters over the windows of vision, bearing the bleak inscription, ‘nothing else’. We have seen how the poets, to whom the clarification of our vision had been entrusted, fought a rear-guard action, and especially how Coleridge did this both by writing poetry full of clarified, imaginative vision, and also by undertaking the hard, philosophical work necessary to reinstate the imagination as an instrument with which we grasp reality rather than evade it.  We have seen that in order to make sense of the actual experience of writing and reading poetry, he was compelled to rediscover the mystery of God as Holy Trinity.  For Coleridge poetry is not a fanciful compensation for the irreducible bleakness of things; it is part of the evidence that all things are at least potentially luminous with the light of God.  Coleridge was a prophet sent more for our own age than for his; he foresaw the inadequacy of the whole Cartesian/Newtonian model with its foreclosed rigidities and its too-easy submission to what he called the ‘despotism of the eye’.  Now, we live in an age when that rigid system, against which Coleridge was protesting, is being overthrown.  Those blinding shutters inscribed ‘nothing else’ are being drawn up; and now it is not only the major poets in our midst, like Heaney, but also the scientists themselves and the philosophers of science, rediscovering the vital role imagination has to play in their endeavours, who are helping to remove these ‘blinds’.”

This cleansing and training of vision through a revitalised imagination, is a common task for Science, Poetry and Theology. My purpose has been to highlight the essential role, in fulfilling this common task, played by the poetic imagination.

I hope you have enjoyed these extracts and that those of you who have a chance to read it enjoy the book. The publishers page is here

and the English Amazon page is here.

the American Amazon page is here

I’m sorry that, as a modern hardback it is so expensive, I hope, if this edition sells well enough, that they will bring it out in an accessible paperback. Meanwhile you can always encourage your local library to buy it.

M

 

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Filed under christianity, imagination, Inklings, literature, Poems, Theology and Arts